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Several years ago, I discussed the possible relationship of prospect theory to the Russian “annexation” of Crimea. Prospect theory suggests that people are more likely to take risks to avoid losses than to gain benefits. This is consistent with the well-known psychological propensity for loss aversion. Losing something worries us much more than not being able to gain something. In the world of international relations, this means that states should be expected to use military force more often when they are threatened with loss than as a tool to acquire what they do not already have.
It is therefore interesting to see some confirmation of this in a new study published by RAND Corporation entitled Russia’s Military Interventions: Patterns, Drivers, and Signposts. It analyzes incidents of Russian military intervention in the post-Soviet era and concludes that loss prevention is one of the main motivators.
The report lists 25 military “interventions” by the Russian Federation since 1992. The term “intervention” is loosely defined as “any deployment of military forces outside Russian borders that meets the 100 man-years threshold for ground forces (or the equivalent threshold for air and naval forces) and that engages in related activities. including fighting, deterrence, humanitarian response, stabilization (ie peacekeeping), training and assistance, and security, among others. ” Most of these 25 activities fall under the heading of “stabilization”, including a number of UN peacekeeping operations, border security in Tajikistan, and so on. It is characteristic that post-Soviet Russia did not very often participate in hostilities.
The report concludes that “compared to the Soviet Union or the United States, Russia’s military interventions were modest in scale and number and limited in geographic scope.” As you can see from these charts, the Russian Federation’s military presence abroad is much smaller than that of the USSR. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of his, as a rule, very limited “interventions” took place in the space of the former Soviet Union.
Number of Russian “military interventions” by type of activity and geographic region (1992-2018)
The number of servicemen who participated in Russian “military interventions”, by years (1946-2018)
Thus, modern Russia is much more regionally oriented than the Soviet Union, and its main goal is regional stability.
The report analyzes various motives for military intervention previously identified in the scientific literature on this topic. He dismisses most of them as irrelevant or only marginally relevant to the Russian case.
For example, the report says there is little or no evidence that Russian military intervention is driven by economics or ideology. Likewise, the study rejects the idea that Russia is afraid of “spreading” democratic ideas from neighboring countries such as Ukraine, and therefore seeks to prevent democracy from taking root there. As the report says: “We certainly do not have examples of Russian leaders talking about their fear of the demonstrative impact of Ukrainian democratic success on the Russian population. Moreover, we know that Russian elites have a very low opinion of their Ukrainian counterparts; they find it hard to imagine the possibility that Ukraine can survive without the help of the West, let alone become a prosperous democracy. “
The theory “the tail wags the dog” is also rejected. Russia does not engage in military activities in order to divert attention from domestic problems, says RAND. “There is little evidence that Putin ever felt that his popular support, the basis of his power, was seriously threatened,” the report said. Moreover, there is no statistical correlation between low levels of government support and foreign intervention. In fact, as this chart shows, military intervention under Putin has declined compared to its predecessor. Yeltsin (i.e. since 2000).
Number of ongoing Soviet and Russian “military interventions”, by year (1946-2018)
In any case, the study argues, it is wrong to consider Putin as the main driving force behind Russian military interventions. As the report says: “If we consider all Russian interventions that meet the threshold described in this report, it becomes clear that most of them occurred before Putin came to power … Most importantly, there is a broad consensus among the Russian elites today on foreign policy … [существует] there is little direct evidence that Putin’s personal biases are the main driving force behind Russian intervention. “
In short, all claims that Russia seeks to export its authoritarian ideology, destabilize democracy, support the “Putin regime” or is simply driven by the aggressive personality of Putin himself is wrong.
So what is causing Russian interference?
According to the report, three motives stand out: concern about national status; regional balance of power; and external threats. The authors conclude: “Changes on the ground in post-Soviet Eurasia, especially in Ukraine, that pose an external threat or perceived rapid changes in the regional balance or status of Russia in ways contrary to Russian interests, should be seen as potential triggers for Russian military action. Moscow will not hesitate to act, including with the use of force, in its near abroad. Second, Russia does seem to be acting in accordance with its desire to avoid losses when it comes to the balance of regional power. Moscow intervened when it felt the regional balance was shifting away from the status quo favorable to Russian interests. … Russia appears to be acting in a way that is consistent with its desire to avoid losses when it comes to the balance of regional power. … In short, Russia can be prompted to act by the desire to prevent imminent losses. “
In other words, Russia intervenes when in its immediate environment it feels the threat of loss of status, stability or security. It does not intervene in pursuit of what might be called “aggressive” or “imperialist” goals, or to divert public opinion from domestic political issues. And this is not a question of Vladimir Putin. Russia will retain the same interests and the same passions, regardless of who is in power.
The report ends with a brief set of recommendations for US policy, primarily that the US should avoid putting Moscow in a position where it feels that it is about to suffer serious losses in its near abroad. As the reports of this think tank show, this is remarkably sober and reasonable, and I don’t find anything to criticize other than a fairly broad definition of “intervention.” Basically, it all comes down to this: “Don’t corner the bear.” In this sense, it is really pretty obvious. It also contradicts the currently widespread view that Russia is obsessed with aggression and must be reduced to size by all available means, including by invading its near abroad. If this report is correct, then this is the worst thing that could be done. But I doubt anyone will listen to this.
Author: Paul Robinson – Paul Robinson is a professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, author of numerous books on Russia and Soviet history.
Translation by Sergey Dukhanov… The source of the publication is here.